Amanda Palmer, post-Dresden Dolls, ‘solos’ in Aspen
December 4, 2008
ASPEN ” The influences that have been identified as shaping Amanda Palmer are an interesting and diverse bunch: punk, street busking, Brechtian cabaret, avant-garde theater. Only lately, the 32-year-old singer, keyboardist and composer herself has put her finger on another medium that has helped to mold her: MTV, circa the golden years of the mid-’80s.
“I’m only realizing now how pivotal that was,” said Palmer from Detroit, where she was enjoying a day off from her current tour, which brings her to Aspen on Sunday. “Prince, Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, Boy George ” I looked up at those as icons.”
In fact, none of the aforementioned seems to have left much of a musical imprint on Palmer, who is best known as the frontwoman of the Dresden Dolls. That group, a duo with drummer Brian Viglione, plays a punk-oriented, piano-centered version of German-style cabaret ” a far remove from Prince’s strutting funk, or Boy George’s glam, or Lauper’s offbeat pop. What Palmer took was a sense of drama, character, costume, make-up ” the idea that music, especially as delivered on the small screen in three-minute videos, could be a form of theater.
“All my influences were performance-based,” said Palmer. “It always seemed that performance and theatricality were part and parcel of the job. It seemed like you needed to perform to get the job.”
Palmer makes her Aspen debut Sunday, Dec. 7 at Belly Up as a so-called “solo act.” She cautions, though, that concertgoers should not be misled by the label. The solo show actually boasts five more performers than are featured in the Dresden Dolls. “It’s a huge ironic twist that I’ve gone ‘solo.’ I have seven people on stage with me,” said Palmer.
The cast list includes the Danger Ensemble, a four-member acting troupe from Australia, and a two-piece string section that includes cellist Zoë Keating, one of the evening’s opening acts. (The other opening act is the eclectic Portland, Ore. rock group, The Builders and the Butchers.)
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Palmer’s career actually began as something of a solo act ” but it seems almost needless to say that she wasn’t a girl sitting on a stool, strumming an acoustic guitar. She gained some notoriety as a street performer, appearing around Boston as an oversized, over-dressed character, The Eight-Foot Bride.
Palmer’s earliest creative endeavors were in the theater. At Lexington Public High School in Lexington, Mass., a few miles northwest of Boston, she had the good fortune to be taught by a gifted, young theater enthusiast, Steve Bogart. “It was a really lucky situation. We did incredible, challenging, mature stuff,” recalled Palmer, who wrote and directed her own plays under Bogart.
So fortunate was her high school experience, that college was bound to be a disappointment. At Wesleyan University, “I had to start from scratch,” she said. “So I went off and did my own projects.”
On Halloween night of 2000, after working in various theater projects, Palmer met Brian Viglione. Though he was a drummer, Viglione was game for playing a bigger role than keeping time in a rock band. The two came up with the Dresden Dolls, a duo act that dressed up and applied make-up while singing generally dark-edged songs. The band’s 2003 debut, eponymous studio album earned favorable reviews, But it was their live performances that earned them first a cult audience, and then a wider following. The Dresden Dolls were meant to be an antidote to any previous musical movements that minimized theatrics.
“To me, it’s a shame when a rock ‘n’ roll show is boring, Because it doesn’t have to be,” said Palmer. “There’s been a terrible loss in the last 20 years, in that musicians feel they don’t have to be entertainers. They self-righteously took the stage and think they don’t have to engage the audience.
“Now it seems like it’s comfortable to go the other direction. It’s been nice to see energetic bands ” the Decemberists, the Arcade Fire ” show bands, that really understand the fundamental connection between the stage and the audience. That a show is a show.”
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In September, Palmer put her own name on the marquee, with the release of her debut solo album, “Who Killed Amanda Palmer.” The title reveals that MTV was not the only small-screen influence on the singer; the title is a twist on the early-’90s mystery, “Twin Peaks,” and its eternal question, “Who killed Laura Palmer?”
Palmer says that, after five years working almost nonstop with Viglione, it was time to pull the plug on the Dresden Dolls. (The group released “No, Virginia …,” a compilation of outtakes and B-sides, in May.) For a while, it also looked as if Palmer might re-emerge in seriously stripped-down form. While writing the material for “Who Killed Amanda Palmer,” she envisioned the songs being recorded using nothing more than her vocals and piano playing.
And then she met Ben Folds, a rock singer-pianist, and that idea exploded. “In terms of the sonic production, as soon as Ben got involved all simplicity got thrown out the window,” said Palmer. “And I was happy to see it go. I took a 180, and put full production on this album.”
The album delivers maximum dramatic effect. The song list is divided into two acts. Palmer’s piano and vocals are backed by Zoë Keating’s cello, string arrangements by Paul Buckmaster; and backing singers including East Bay Ray of the punk group the Dead Kennedys, Annie Clark of the indie-rock band St. Vincent, and Folds himself. On the expansive “Leeds United,” Palmer brings in a Scottish horn section that gets dubbed, the Born Again Horny Men. A companion publication, “The Big Book of Who Killed Amanda Palmer,” will feature writing and photographs.
Onstage, such songs as “Oasis” ” a narrative of rape, abortion and the British rock band of the title ” are fleshed out by the theater troupe, the Danger Ensemble. Palmer first saw an incarnation of the group in 2000, at the Adelaide Fringe Festival in Australia.
“It was this beautiful piece of Butoh-based theater art, based on this ’60s Japanese style, very visceral,” said Palmer. “I saw their performance and stayed in touch with the people. Four years later, I went back with Dresden Dolls, and the theater group opened for us. And they’ve just become part of the family.”
Palmer relishes the idea that concertgoers might come to her show expecting to see one unadorned woman, sitting at a piano and singing her songs. (She is also looking forward to the reactions of diners earlier Sunday evening, at Aspen restaurant Matsuhisa, where she plans an “assault-style” theater performance based on the theme of sushi.)
“People love being surprised,” she said. “Because the whole room changes. When they get the full assault, it’s great.”